The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tuition-free college movement gains momentum, despite Biden’s stalled plan

President Biden, flanked by Vice President Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on March 1. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Biden may have tabled his bid for universal free community college, but states and municipalities are keeping the momentum going with new or expanded programs to cover tuition.

At least seven tuition-free initiatives have publicly launched since November, according to the College Promise campaign, which advocates making the first two or more years of college free. The governors of Pennsylvania and Maine are pushing for new programs, while the University of Texas System Board of Regents recently approved a $300 million endowment to cover tuition for more students at its public institutions.

Political negotiations spell the demise of Biden’s universal community college plan

College Promise programs, as tuition-free initiatives are commonly known, enjoy widespread support across the political spectrum. Forty-seven states and D.C. have at least one such program at the college, city or state level. There are 33 statewide programs that cover tuition at community colleges or universities and higher education, and experts say the number is likely to grow.

Critics of universal public college say the price tag is unsustainable. Opponents of tuition-free community college say too many of the schools have poor outcomes, with fewer than 40 percent of students earning a degree within six years. Advocates argue that could be remedied by providing more institutional dollars and financial aid to keep students on track.

A handful of bills have been introduced this Congress to provide tuition-free access to community college or public universities, but none have advanced.

Biden is still calling for the federal government to step up its role in subsidizing college. In his first State of the Union address this week, the president urged Congress to “invest in what Jill, our first lady, … calls America’s best-kept secret: community colleges.”

Neither Biden nor first lady Jill Biden, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, have conceded defeat in creating a federal-state partnership to lower the cost of college. Their plans were scuttled as Democrats fought and failed to reach a consensus on the president’s signature Build Back Better package. But Biden continues to emphasize the policy as a priority.

Advocates welcome the commitment as they say federal dollars are critical for the longevity of College Promise programs.

Did the idea of free public higher education go down with the Democrats?

“There is a real opportunity to build on what local communities and states are doing,” said Martha Kanter, the executive director of the nonprofit College Promise campaign. A federal-state partnership “will create a sustainable endowment process that could fully fund this for all.”

In the meantime, Kanter, a former undersecretary of education in the Obama administration, said state leaders are upping their investment in postsecondary education as a part of their economic strategy.

Take New Mexico, where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) signed into law Friday legislation that funds tuition for up to 35,000 residents to pursue certificates, associate’s and bachelor’s degrees this fall. The bill would create one of the most inclusive College Promise programs in the country by covering tuition for part-time students and adult learners returning to school.

Many tuition plans only cover full-time students who are fresh out of high school, and provide funding after other state and federal grants are taken into account — what’s known as a last-dollar model. New Mexico, however, will provide funding before other scholarships are applied. That means a student whose family income is low enough to qualify for a Pell Grant can use those federal dollars toward other college expenses.

It seems like a no-lose idea: free college. But nobody can agree on the details.

“Signing this legislation sends a clear message to New Mexicans that we believe in them and the contributions they will make for their families and the future of our great state,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement Friday.

The legislation expands New Mexico’s Opportunity Scholarship program, one of four existing state scholarships. New Mexico was among the first in the country in 1996 to offer high school graduates a tuition-free path to college with lottery proceeds.

The Lottery Scholarship paid full tuition for students until 2016 when declining state revenue reduced coverage. A resurgence in ticket sales and increased budget appropriations are now allowing the state to fully fund the program, yet lawmakers say the eligibility requirements shut out nontraditional students.

Expanding the Opportunity Scholarship is meant to remedy the problem, but the legislature only agreed to fund the expansion for one year. Most of the $75 million investment is sourced from federal pandemic-relief dollars and some worry the broad eligibility could sink the program down the road.

A number of states have used federal pandemic funds to shore up College Promise programs. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) used some of the state’s allocation to create Futures for Frontliners, a scholarship for essential workers to attend community college.

After the scholarship rolled out in 2020, about 100,000 people signed up, Whitmer said in an interview last year. Those who did not qualify were encouraged to apply for Michigan Reconnect, which covers community college tuition for residents 25 and older without a degree.

The public response underscored that cost is a hurdle, she said, while the political support for the initiative underscored the importance of workforce training.

“We really were able to build an energized coalition of business leaders, Democrats, Republicans … because employers in our state will tell you their greatest need is a skilled workforce,” Whitmer said. “We could find common ground and strengthen our economy, which helps everyone.”

Brandy Johnson, president of the Michigan Community College Association, credits the tuition-free programs with a jump in enrollment in 2021. Although head counts are still below pre-pandemic levels, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center tracked a 19 percent increase at the state’s two-year schools in 2021, coming off a 20 percent decline the prior year.

There is a sense of urgency among state leaders to re-engage people who have stepped off the path to a credential since the pandemic, College Promise’s Kanter said. There is also a recognition that the cost of higher education can be prohibitive for many low- and middle-income families.

The University of Texas System Board of Regents acknowledged as much recently when members signed off Feb. 23 on Promise Plus, a new endowment to expand tuition coverage at seven of the eight UT schools (UT-Austin already has such a fund).

The universities currently cover tuition and fees for full-time undergraduates with family income under a certain threshold, which varies by institution. The new endowment will allow schools to raise their thresholds to help more students. The board anticipates the fund will generate $15 million a year and provide each campus with at least $1 million to supplement their tuition plans.

“This is huge for getting kids into our institutions and across the finish lines and connecting learning to employability,” one of the regents, Nolan Perez, said during the Feb. 23 meeting.

States are taking advantage of sizable budget surpluses stemming from the economic recovery and federal assistance, said Thomas Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

While fluctuations in state revenue could pose a threat to tuition-free plans, he said the broad appeal and cost structure of many programs give them staying power. Many states offer last-dollar programs, which help rein in costs, although advocates say they also limit the benefit to lower-income students.

All the same, Harnisch said the federal government needs to partner with states to make public higher education more affordable in the long term.

“When states experience lean budget years, higher education is one of the first things to get cut and that leads to tuition increases,” he said. “We want to develop a system that provides incentives for states to maintain their funding for higher education and not just rely so much on increases in the federal Pell Grant program.”